It’s time for China says watch chief

Richard Tibber, who runs the UK’s largest watch firm, is eyeing up new growth markets.

By Candice Krieger, October 27, 2011
Richard Tibber’s watch firm Zeon has a 15 per cent UK market share

Richard Tibber’s watch firm Zeon has a 15 per cent UK market share

Richard Tibber is never late. Hardly surprising considering he owns several dozen watches and has access to millions.

Mr Tibber is the managing director of Zeon, the UK's leading watch company. It sells more than 2.5 million watches a year, achieves around £30 million worth of sales and has a 15 per cent market share.

The company's products, which include gifts and gadgets, are in most high street stores from Asda to John Lewis. But for Mr Tibber, 61, there is no time to sit back. A former manager at Marks & Spencer, he is always eyeing up new opportunities.

Zeon predominantly supplies licensed and own-label watches - priced between £25 and £500 - to the mainstream market, described by Mr Tibber as the "bread and butter of the business." But he is keen to increase the firm's presence at the higher end.

Last year Zeon bought ailing Swiss watch company Ventura, in which Uri Geller is a shareholder, for around £500,000. Prices range between £1,000 and £5,000. It has also secured the worldwide licence for British luxury fashion brand Vivienne Westwood.

Mr Tibber says: "We are looking to get into higher-end accounts in different countries."

A shrewd move. Luxury goods appear to be back in fashion despite the difficult climate. The sector is due to expand 10 per cent this year to £6.5 billion and will grow a further 57 per cent to £9.4 billion by 2015, according to a report by Ledbury Research.

The growth is being driven by the middle classes and young affluent people from emerging markets and the BRIC economies, particularly China - an area Mr Tibber is keen to penetrate. He has recently started distributing there.

"Luxury goods are doing well because of the China market. It is enjoying huge booms in sales because of the demand as it gets wealthier. The big-name luxury brands: the Gucci's and the Mulberry's, are enjoying tremendous growth because of that.

"China has tremendous potential for us."

Statistics compiled by Hong Kong-based research firm CLSA indicate that the luxury-goods sector is set to be the fastest-growing consumer category in China over the next five years.

Mr Tibber admits he had "no particular interest in watches" before founding Zeon in 1979 aged 29. Today he "lives and breathes them.

"I had spent six years at Marks & Spencer in store management and in the head office buying department. I decided to take a year out and go travelling. I spent six months working in Japan and got to know the Far East a bit. I came back and started getting into watches when I saw the first electronic watches (LED) being sold in America. They captured my imagination. Before that I wasn't into watches anymore than the next person. Now they are my passion."

He began buying and selling LED ones through the classified column of the Evening Standard.

"I realised there was a demand. The more I bought, the more I sold." He invested £50,000 into starting the company, which is head quartered in Staples Corner, north London.

More than three decades later and the business has grown dramatically. He highlights some key years along the way: In 1981, it became the first UK company to introduce a range of licensed children's watches, notably the successful James Bond watch. Nine years later it bought 100-year-old brand Ingersoll for around £1 million. It is on sale in 50 countries and is Zeon's best-selling brand.

In 1995 Mr Tibber sold the business to to the Herald Group - a Hong Kong publically quoted company listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. He stayed on as managing director.

"The opportunities for growth were that much better being part of a larger company." Quite. The following year UK sales topped £20 million for the first time. The business has continued to increase its brand portfolio, which includes Bench, Gant and Paul's Boutique.

Today Zeon is active in 50 countries with more than 150 employees.

Business continues to grow yet Mr Tibber acknowledges that UK sales over the past couple of years have been "flat" due to the economic climate.

"The British retail market is definitely tough - no question about it. But because 50 to 60 per cent of our business is outside the UK, it gives up a bit of flexibility and there are still growth opportunities in certain places outside of Britain."

Besides, people are still buying watches. "They have become a fashion accessory and not just for telling the time. People like to own a number of watches that they alternate according to what they are doing. And there is a lot of bling around for women."

He adds: "We are always looking at new designs and technologies."

The group is also developing an e-commerce division. You can not currently buy online from Zeon. "This is definitely an area we will be majoring on. So much is going on to the internet these days."

A father-of-two and stepfather-of-three, Mr Tibber lives in Arkley, Herts. He is a member of the Institute of Directors and the Variety Club of Great Britain. He enjoys the theatre, playing the guitar, travelling and boating at his second home in Mallorca - when he has the time one assumes.

Last updated: 11:24am, October 27 2011